Stephan Spencer | Solving the Google Black Box

Adam LeanPodcast

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is a must-have for any business with a website – and these days that’s just about every business. Stephan Spencer helps clients bring massive traffic (i.e. leads) to their sites using cutting-edge SEO tools and strategies.

It’s all about getting on page 1 of the Google results, and that means having the right keywords in place. Exactly how to do that is always changing based on Google’s algorithm. Stephan shares how he stays one step ahead of the game.

The next step: converting those leads into customers with marketing messages and web content that compels people to take action. We talk about how to make that happen, as well as…

  • “Trick questions” you can use to hire the right SEO provider
  • The danger of “tone-deaf” website content
  • Why you shouldn’t be a “hero” to your prospects
  • The 3 steps to determining the right messaging for your target market
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in this episode:


Adam Lean: In this episode, we’re going to talk about how to get traffic to your website. We’re going to talk to a marketing expert that’s focused on getting results in the areas of leads, sales and profitability. This is P is for Profit.

Adam: Welcome to P is for Profit. My name is Adam Lean and I, along with the rest of the team at The CFO Project are passionate about helping business owners improve the profitability of their business. My guest today is Stephan Spencer. He’s a marketing expert in the areas of getting leads and converting those leads through compelling messaging. Stephan, welcome to the show. 

Stephan Spencer: Hey Adam. Thanks for having me.

Adam: Yeah, I’m really excited to have you here because in this time that we live in where everybody’s working remote and we’re trying to attract visitors remotely to our business. And whether you have a brick and mortar or website, you’re now in the mode of attracting visitors virtually via the internet. And so you are an expert at SEO and converting, you know, copy that, or writing copy or messaging that converts. But tell us just a little bit about yourself and how you got into this.

How Stephan Became a Digital Marketing Expert

Stephan: Yeah, well, I’ve been doing SEO and online marketing since the early 90s. SEO started in the, let’s say mid-90s. And I was there at the beginning. I was optimizing for Infoseek, and AltaVista, and those sorts of, now they’re like seven or eight different major search engines back in the day. But boy, things have changed massively and now we’re entering a world of artificial intelligence and voice search and just, it’s an exciting time to be alive. 

It’s also kind of a harrowing time with what we’re going through. But we’ll talk about that. But the idea here that I just love reverse-engineering the Google algorithm and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I love reverse engineering anything that’s got like a black box to it I want to figure that system out. So I dropped out of a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1995 and started an agency called Net Concepts. And yeah, 15 years later, I sold that agency.

I developed a pay for performance cost per click based SEO technology platform and that made the company quite valuable to, for us to be an acquisition target. It’s like money while you slept, right? So we have clients like Nordstrom and Zappos who were using our technology which was called Gravity Stream. And ended up being the majority of the revenue generated by the agency. So, since then I’ve been doing SEO for just a small number of companies. 

Just it’s kind of a boutique, not even agency, just consultancy. I just didn’t want to recreate a brand new, another agency all over again. But in the process, I did some kind of wild stuff. I got a crazy idea I could live in New Zealand because why not? You know, I’d never even been there and I applied for residency and I got in and convinced my wife at the time and my kids that this would be good. And we lived there almost eight years. It was magical. 

The place is a paradise. Also authored some books during this time. I started with The Art of SEO, which is now in its third edition. It’s almost 1000 pages, published by O’Reilly. I also have two other books with O’Reilly as my publisher. It’s for the first edition of Google Power Search. Self-publishing that in a second edition, soon to be a third edition. So that’s Google Power Search all about how to find things on Google and be a power user. Things like confidential business plans. You can find that stuff online, surprisingly. 

You could find Forrester Research reports, Gartner reports and so forth that normally cost thousands of dollars for free just with the right Google searches. And then Social Ecommerce. So it’s another book that I published with O’Reilly and I wanted to not be pigeonholed as the SEO guy. So I came up with a social media book.  So that’s me in a nutshell. Worked with brands like Chanel, Sony, Zappos, Volvo, CNBC, Bloomberg Businessweek, Bed Bath and Beyond and Quicksilver. A whole bunch of different really cool, interesting brands over the years. And smaller companies too. Lots of smaller companies.

Adam:  So SEO, Search Engine Optimization at a 50,000-foot view, what is that?

Stephan: That’s figuring out what is going to have the best opportunity to rank in Google for the right keywords that people are actually searching for. When I say the right keywords, I mean, keywords that are popular with searchers that are relevant to your business are attainable to rank on page one for. I hate this joke, but it’s pretty apropos. And that where’s the best place to hide a dead body? Page two on Google, right? So nobody goes to page two on Google. 

You have to be on page one. Ideally, in the first half of page one. How do you get there? And what are the keywords that people are going to be typing into Google that you should be ranking for? So that’s SEO kind of in a nutshell. You need a lot, there’s a lot of nuance to it. You need links pointing to your site in order to be considered important and authoritative by Google. 

You need to have great content that’s valuable, keeps people engaged and not bouncing or what Google refers to as Pogo sticking out of your site. So there’s a lot to it. We could kind of dig into some of those details if you’d like. But we can also continue to look at things from a 30 to 50,000-foot view level and just see how folks can get more leads and more sales, especially in an economic downturn. So however you want to proceed, we can do it.

Adam: Yeah, well, I just want to make sure, you know, cuz people, I mean, I’m sure everybody’s heard of SEO, but not really sure what it is. And I just wanted just, one more question on the topic of SEO though, is that I, like I said, a lot of people have heard of it. But the problem is not many people understand it enough Because it’s sort of this gray area. 

I mean, you’re trying to in a way I guess, manipulate Google and Bing and the other search engines to get them to get your website to be number one when somebody types in roofing company, Atlanta, Georgia, you want to be the number one link for that keyword. But the way you go about doing it is this black hole the people. I mean, just in a really high level, how does that even work? 

Black Hat vs. White Hat

Stephan: Yeah. Well, it is a black, not a black hole, it’s kind of a black box. Yeah, definitely not a black art or dark art. So there’s a misconception around that, that this is a black hat stuff, that it’s stuff that’s not okay with Google. No, Google endorses and appreciates SEOs who operate from a white hat sort of set of tactics and strategies. Okay, so white hat is good, black hat is bad. Black hat is not sustainable. It’s short term. It’s manipulation, as you said. 

But white hat SEO is not manipulation. I mean, is public relations manipulation? You’re trying to schmooze and wine and dine different journalists and TV producers and so forth in the hopes that they will cover your product, your service, your company, your client, on an upcoming TV episode, maybe bring them on as a guest, or to cover their product or launch or something in an article, in their newspaper or magazine, is that manipulation? 

No, that’s just, that’s good business to be out there networking, building rapport, relationships, relatedness. That just makes good sense. So it’s not manipulation to do SEO. And you also mentioned another thing that, well, it’s all these search engines, Google Bing, whatever, it’s all Google. It’s really Google and Google and then there’s also Google. Well, there’s actually YouTube as well. That’s the number two search engine. A lot of people don’t realize that.

Adam: Which is owned by 

Stephan: Google.

Adam: Yeah. So okay, so now that we sort of understand what SEO is, somebody, a small to medium-sized business owner who needs right now, especially more than any other time, to get new leads or new clients or visitors or customers, whatever, to their business to either call them or to go to their website. How does SEO fit in? And what other strategies should they be using?

Knowing Your Voice… and Your Tone

Stephan: Yeah. Well, the first thing they need to understand is their customer, their visitor, their prospect, what’s going on inside their heads. Now there’s this, there’s a big difference between identifying or figuring out what your voice is and then figuring out what the right tone should be. I actually produced voice and tone style guides for my clients as part of the process of figuring out their whole copywriting and SEO strategy. 

So if you understand your voice that includes sentence construction, vocabulary, just personality, but that doesn’t change. As things happen, you know, environment changes, circumstances change, your audience changes potentially, you keep your voice but you modify your tone. 

So understanding that we need to be more emotionally intelligent and more compassionate, understanding. We don’t want to be tone-deaf, like if somebody visits your website. So, Adam, somebody has visits your CFO Project website and there’s no statement about Coronavirus COVID-19 like, what should business owners be doing differently because of this? What’s the stimulus package? How do we take advantage of it? What are some of the gotchas? 

You don’t have anything about that. You haven’t touched your homepage for six months or a year. That looks really tone-deaf. You gotta get your voice, your tone, all the messaging right and connect with the visitor, your ideal customer. That avatar. So identify who that ideal customer is. Write up extensively about that customer’s motivations, their fears, their frustrations, their wants, their aspirations, write up what their internal problem is. Their, not just their external problem or the spoken problem, but the internal problem is the unspoken problem. 

And I’m going to pull a little bit here from the story brand SP7 Framework from Donald Miller for this concept. So the external problem obvious, it’s the spoken problem. But the internal problem is the real reason. It’s like the thing at the core that is bothering the person. And then at an even deeper level, you might have a philosophical problem. So identifying those three layers, very important. Makes a huge difference in you figuring out what the motivations are, the drivers for your target audience and then offering a solution to those problems. 

And so I mentioned Donald Miller’s story brand SB7 Framework. I highly recommend his book, Building a Story Brand. And yeah, just it really helps set the proper staging for your messaging for your design, for everything that you do. Your SEO, because if you are trying to be the hero in the story, you’ve blown out already. You’re not the hero. You’re not supposed to be the hero. The visitor, the customer, the prospect, they are the hero. Your role as the company, the organization is to be the guide. 

So you are not Luke Skywalker. They’re Luke Skywalker, you’re Yoda, or you’re Obi Wan Kenobi. And as the guide who helps the hero, you have the plan. You have the map to the Death Star so that they can destroy it. If you don’t have a plan, if you aren’t positioning yourself as the guide and them as the hero, and maybe even identifying who the villain is, and it’s a shared villain that everybody can get, kind of rally around as being the villain, you’ve already lost.

Adam: The villain being the pain point or the thing that they’re feeling.

Stephan: Not necessarily, not necessarily. It could be that the villain is just something like let’s say you’re a computer company, or let’s say you’re a technology company that helps with upgrading computers like one of my clients is Otherworld Computing OWC, and they help with memory upgrades with hard drive upgrades, solid-state drives that sort of thing. So you have lots of gear for your Mac that will help extend its life. 

So the villain would be planned obsolescence. Like, all these different companies may not just be Apple, might be pretty much across the board, want you to keep upgrading every year or two years and throw out your old device or recycle it because they make a lot more money. But that’s not very environmentally conscious. That’s not necessarily the best thing for your pocketbook. 

So maybe planned obsolescence, making people upgrade every year to public brand new iPhone or whatever, is the shared enemy, the shared villain. So, that’s not the problem. That’s not, certainly not the internal problem or the philosophical problem. But it certainly helps us all galvanize against one common enemy. So identifying the villain, identifying the internal problem, you know, in the book, Building a Story Brand, Donald gives an example of Carmax. You familiar with that company? 

Adam: Yes. buy and sell pre-owned cars.

Stephan: Right. So the external problem for a prospect of Carmax is I need a car. I need to buy a used car. That’s a problem. But it’s an obvious problem that they never address. Not in their marketing or advertising, anywhere, you will never see them address that problem. It’s all about the internal problem. So what do you think is the internal problem if you are going to be shopping for a used car? What do you hate about that process? 

Adam: The dealing with the salesperson and not knowing if you’re getting a good deal.

Stephan: Yeah. The high-pressure sales tactics, the information asymmetry. They might be withholding information that the car is actually a lemon, or will fall apart shortly after you drive it off the lot. And they’re withholding that from you. They don’t have your best interests at heart. They are after themselves and themselves alone. Their commission is everything, right? And we hate that. We hate being hard sold to. 

We step right onto the lot and then we’re just get accosted. Like, Hey, how you doing today? You like that car? I see you just walked up to that car two seconds ago. What do you think of it? Like, back off, buddy. I don’t even know if I like this car yet. I’m just looking at the sticker, right? And so it’s very frustrating, very unpleasant experience. And that’s the internal problem. 

People don’t tend to articulate that problem. They’re not saying, Oh my God, I hate dealing with car salespeople. That’s why I’ve been delaying buying a car for the last six months. No, It’s just kind of in the background. And yeah, I’ll get around to it. I don’t know why I haven’t bought my car yet. I haven’t replaced this old beater yet. I don’t know. It’s just, it’s not been a priority. Well, the internal problem is, hate dealing with salespeople. So Carmax addresses that by not having salespeople, which is brilliant. They’ve got a whole agreement plan. 

There are two types of plans. There’s process plans and agreement plans. They have an agreement plan. We won’t sic a salesperson on you. We won’t give, we’ll give you all the information we have about the vehicle. There won’t be any information asymmetry, in other words. There’s a guarantee. So you won’t get a lemon. But all these agreements or commitments are part of the plan. That’s their map to the Deathstar. And by identifying the internal problem and addressing that in all their advertising and marketing, they build this resonance with the prospect. 

Like, oh my God, I hate salespeople too. Yes, I’m so like, aligned with that message. What’s this Carmax company? What’s their website? What like, how do I work with them? So that is so powerful. And strategy like this will always trump tactics. It will always far exceed the value that you get from tactics. I’m not dissing tactics. I love getting tactical and in the details of stuff and reverse engineering algorithms and stuff like that. I’m a real geek. And in the book, The Art of War, Sun Tzu said tactics without strategy is to noise before defeat,

Adam: But most people start with tactics. They get a shiny, they buy the shiny new course or the read the next book or

Stephan: Right. So they want to get higher rankings in Google and they’ll start tweaking things that don’t even matter like meta Keywords tags, which, incidentally, never counted in Google. And they’re doing the wrong stuff. They’re activity-focused, they’re not outcome-focused. They’re not even sure what the outcome is. They haven’t even defined that. And they’re not operating at a strategic level. So on the battlefield, Sun Tzu would say that they’re going to get slaughtered because they’re going to be running around doing stupid stuff that makes no impact on the outcome.

Adam: It makes so much sense. So that begs the question, somebody listening, what should they do then? What should be their next step before they decide to do SEO or pay per click marketing or email marketing, whatever, what is their next step?

The Metrics of Success

Stephan: Yeah. Well, it’s to figure out the outcome and what the obstacles are and who their partners are going to be to help them to get to that place, right? So it’s like, if you are well equipped with a map, but you don’t know where your destination is that you want to be, that map is useless. So you can have all these tactics and all this. You could have a great partner even that would help you to get there, but where’s there? You haven’t defined it. You don’t have the metrics of success. 

You don’t have the criteria, the milestones, none of that defined. Now, you could at least employ that partner, that vendor, consultant to help you define some of the milestones once you know the end game. Like, where do I want to be 12 months from now, 36 months from now, right? So that three hag, the three year highly achievable goal. You might define that, do a brainstorming session, maybe even involve your team, or at least your executives and come up with what those goals, those targets are. And then you can bring in potential partners. 

And by the way, it’s very tricky to hire a really good SEO, unless you are already a good SEO because you don’t know the right questions to ask. But you have a great free download for your listeners on that. Well, two great free downloads. One is called My SEO Hiring Blueprint and the other is The SEO BS Detector. So these are two PDF documents. I’ll put them on a page on, I’ll put them on my Marketing Speak website, on let’s see So that’s where I’ll put it. 

Adam: Okay.  We’ll add that to the show notes.

Stephan: Yep. Perfect. So I highly recommend that you insert in just slightly into the interview process with an SEO or agency owner, whoever, these trick questions. And these trick questions don’t sound like trick questions. They just sound totally innocent and part of the rest of your questions. 

Adam: What would be an example? 

Stephan: Well, I mentioned meta keywords never counted in Google. So a way to spin that as a question is, what’s your process for optimizing meta keywords? Now you know there’s only one right answer to that. Now you do. What? Meta keywords? Those never counted in Google. Are you crazy? Right? That’s the right answer. If they say something other than that, like, well, meta keywords don’t count that much. So it’s not where I would start. Kick them to the curb because that’s, they clearly don’t know SEO. 

If they say, well, meta keywords don’t really count anymore, like they used to in Google, kick them to the curb. That’s not the right answer. The right answer is only this, meta keywords never counted in Google. They were never a positive ranking signal. So this is how it’s a trick question with only one right answer. And you know the answer and you’re not tipping your hand to let them know that you know the one right answer, and that there is only one right answer. So I have a handful of these sorts of questions and answers with the only right answer in that free download. 

Adam: So I guess if listeners take one thing away from this episode, is that you have to focus on a strategy before we even get into the tactics.

A Proper Strategy Must Be Specific, Measurable, Attainable and Time-Bound

Stephan: Yeah. Yeah, know where you’re going and strategies will always beat tactics, so focus on those. But first focus on the outcome, right? So if you, let’s say that your outcome, Adam, is to quadruple your reach with this podcast, That’s a terrible goal, by the way, because it’s very amorphous and undefined, right? A smart goal is one that specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. Something like that. 

Anyway, so where’s the time boundaries? Let’s say it’s 12 months from now. So, four times my reach for this podcast in 12 months. Okay, so now we got time-bound. Is that well defined, though, in terms of what is reached? No. What’s the metric for reach? How do you define reach? Is it number of listens? Is it number of downloads? Is it number of comments? Is it number of leads coming in from the podcast? And how do you connect the podcast to your bottom line? 

The actual traffic is not necessarily, or reach is not necessarily monetizable. What about leads? What about Actual clients? What about revenue from those clients? Are you connecting the podcast up to that so you can see what the bottom-line impact is? There’s a lot to unpack here and we’re not even talking about SEO yet. We’re just saying, well, let’s get very clear about where we’re heading. Now, we got to come up with some strategies and again, a vendor, a consultant, like an analyst, somebody can come up with a lot of options for you for strategies. 

I do that a lot with my clients, is come up with all sorts of crazy brilliant ideas, ways for them to get PR and links and opportunities for partnerships and strategic alliances and everything else. So yeah, it doesn’t have to all fall under your, on your shoulders. Dan Sullivan from Strategic Coach says that it’s not about how it’s about who, right? It’s the who not the how to figure out the right who in the how solves itself.

Adam: Wow. Yeah. Now, this has been very, very helpful. I mean, time has flown by. Just, you know, one last question. So where can people learn more? I mean, you mentioned the, but where can they learn more about you and find out how to do what you’re talking about? How to come up with outcomes and come up with a strategy?

Stephan: Yeah, well, I have a website and blog at That includes a lot of blog posts, many of them on SEO. Also a ton of articles and videos, recordings of appearances on TV that I did and speaking engagements and things like that. So there’s a lot of free material on there. I also recommend checking out my book, The Art of SEO. 

I recommend rather than trying to figure it out yourself and do it yourself, I mean, it is 1000 page book, 994 pages, I think it’s a who problem. So if somebody wants to check me out and look at potentially working with me for SEO, I’m happy to have a conversation. They can just go to the contact page and fill out the form and we’ll have a conversation.

Adam: Stephan, thank you so much for being with us today.

Stephan: Thanks for having me. It was fun.

Adam: So, listeners, again, I would like to thank Stephan for being here. And if you would like to see if he can help you with your business, please reach out. I’ll put those two websites in the show notes. Thank you so much for listening. And remember, the goal of your business should be to make more profit than last year and turn that profit into cash that you get to keep. Thanks for listening.